In late 2002, 26-year-old Laci Peterson was murdered by her husband, Scott. Laci was eight months pregnant at the time of her death, and the tragedy echoed across the U.S. and Canada as details of the case began to emerge: she disappeared on Christmas Eve, she was found dismembered and decapitated months later, and in the wake of her disappearance, Scott acted aloof and unconcerned. At the time of his arrest, he was found carrying $10,000 in cash, his brother’s ID and some camping gear. (Oh, and he had also dyed his hair and grown a full beard.) Scott was convicted in November 2003 and sentenced to death that December.
This case, captivating in its heartbreak, also signalled the start of a new norm in true crime coverage. In the early days of the 24-hour news cycle, Laci Peterson’s murder served as a perfect narrative for our own voyeuristic tendencies. We mourned the loss of a young woman and her unborn son, analyzed Scott’s behaviour from the comfort of our homes and devoured his trial as sport, rooting for a conviction.
Plus, unlike the crimes that came before, the early 2000s established tabloid culture as an accepted and authentic form of news coverage. Through extensive Us Weekly-like reports, we learned about Scott Peterson’s mistress Amber Frey, heard from members of Laci and Scott’s family, and saw for ourselves when he refused to speak at his late wife’s vigil. Laci and Scott were now just not victim and villain, but fully realized characters in a story we consumed for entertainment.
And from this, a new precedent was set. Shows like Unsolved Mysteries, City Confidential and Forensic Files leapt from their late-night time slots and gave way to a new era of prestige programming. Even network staples like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit upped the ante and began pulling plots from the headlines. And that led to podcasts like Serial, documentaries like Making A Murderer and The Jinx, and specials like the upcoming Chandra Levy: An American Murder Mystery, which completed the genre’s transformation from pulpy fringe to mainstream preoccupation.
Which is great—within reason. This surge in true crime has helped kick-start a newfound interest in, and dedication to, dissecting the circumstances that lead to tragedy. Through podcasts like My Favourite Murder in particular, a community has formed under the banner of slogans like “f-ck politeness,” prompting much-needed discourse about toxic masculinity, domestic violence, addiction and mental health. Even TLC’s current series about Laci Peterson is framed as a thorough investigation into the murder, and has included interviews with members of her own family, Amber Frey, and those closest to the case, which remind viewers that while Laci became a name, she was also a person. One whose life was taken gruesomely at the hands of someone she loved and trusted. And while Dateline has long perfected this type of approach, the Peterson multi-episode special reads more like an exercise in storytelling than merely cold, hard facts.
And that’s where the downside to true crime-as-entertainment tends to rear its head. While we may consume documentaries, podcasts and television specials in the belief that we’re educating ourselves, they can also serve as vessels for for sensational entertainment without real contemplation. Sure, we all talked incessantly about Making a Murderer’s Steven Avery when the Netflix series first dropped, but how many of our conversations revolved around the victim, Teresa Halbach? (The same goes for Serial’s Hae Lee.) And one glance at People’s recently launched true crime section is an exercise in sensationalism-as-click bait. All of which highlight the pitfalls of true crime being treated as entertainment: it shouldn’t be.
Or, it shouldn’t just be.
Last year, In The Dark—a Peabody award-winning podcast hosted by journalist Madeleine Baran—sought to investigate why the 1989 kidnapping and murder of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling had yet to be solved. However, the killer ended up confessing a week before the release of the first episode, so Baran used the case to draw attention to the failures of police, of the media who covered the case, and the way we tend to engage with tragedy. Stranglers followed a similar route: a podcast hosted by journalist Portland Helmich, it examined the holes in convicted murderer Alberto DeSalvo’s testimonies, as well as the flaws in the investigation as a whole. Each victim was also given due diligence, as their detailed backstories were shared and their memories honoured at the podcast’s close. Both productions explored the grisly nature of the crimes (often to the point of it being hard to listen to), but still reminded listeners that they were indulging in another person’s horrific demise. You leave feeling rattled because you should.
Because that’s the thing: murder is terrible. And arguably, we’ve opted to consume it as entertainment because it makes it less scary or real. By using podcasts and documentaries to explore the issues that lead to violence, we tell ourselves we’re learning about why it happens—and even better: that we might be able to do something to prevent it. And while discourse can lead to systemic changes, there’s still an onus on us to talk about true crime responsibly; to remember that the victims in question were real people whose right to exist was stolen from them.
Which isn’t to say we can’t enjoy true crime or engage with it in a way that uses humour to diffuse the tension—that’s just the way some of us cope. (Hat tip, again, to My Favourite Murder.) But it’s on us to ask why we’re consuming the stories we are, and in what way. With great popularity comes great responsibility, and the loss of human life encompasses far more than a sensational plot point in a 60-minute podcast.